carving our initials in the snow with our hockey sticks

“You were loved,” the novelist Steven Galloway wrote this week in memory of his friend Alistair MacLeod, who died at the age of 77 in Windsor, Ontario, on April 20. A salute to the author of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and (his only novel) No Great Mischief (1999) might include a passage from the latter in which the narrator, Alexander MacDonald, recalls what it meant in Cape Breton to submit to a post-game interview.

In the years that followed, some of Calum Ruadh’s many descendants expanded his original land holdings, while others moved farther along the coast and others deeper inland. Nearly all of them had large families, which led in turn to complex interrelationships and complicated genealogies, over all of which his name continued to preside. I remember as a high-school athlete, travelling to hockey games in communities which seemed a great distance away, sometimes playing in arenas but more often on windswept ponds beside the sea. And after our games we would be invited into the homes of our hosts, where we would inevitably be quizzed by their parents or grandparents. “What’s your name?” “What’s your father’s name?” “What’s your mother’s father’s name?” And almost without fail, in the case of myself and my cousins, there would come a knowing look across the face of our questioners and they would say, in response to our answer, “Ah, you are the clann Chalum Ruadh,” as if that somehow explained everything. They would pronounce clann in the Gaelic way so that it sounded like “kwown.” “Ah, you are the children (or the family) of the red Calum.” We would nod and accept this judgment, as the ice and snow dripped off our shin pads to form puddles on the linoleum floors. And later, when we were out of the house and thinking ourselves more sophisticated than we were, we would laugh and sometimes imitate the people and their identification. “What is your father’s father’s father’s father’s name?” we would ask one another, carving our initials in the snow with our hockey sticks, and then answering our won questions, “Ah, now I know, you are clann Chalum Ruadh,” and we would laugh and flick snow at one another with the blades of our sticks.


Title by title the fall’s shelf of new hockey books is filling up — with one big gap dead at the centre: we’re still waiting for details of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long-anticipated volume of hockey history.

I was going to say slim there, a slim volume, because that’s what I imagine, without really knowing one way or the other — it could be as mighty a tome as an omnibus budget. The nothing we know hasn’t stopped any of the chatter about what is, no doubt, the most thoroughly dissected book ever to have delved into the early operations of the pre-National Hockey Association Toronto Professionals.

Publishers were bidding on the book back in February, and one of the prospective houses got what it was after on or about March 1: this we know. Otherwise, what we still haven’t heard includes who won, how much they paid, title, page-count, price, what’s the publication date, lots of editing required or just a little? The silence has been spookily reminiscent of a time long, long ago before Twitter knew everything before anyone bothered to know they were interested.

And it goes on: this week I went to the agent handling the deal for the PM, the venerable Michael Levine, for an update, which was this one: “Sorry — no official word yet.”   Continue reading

howe’s young head

When the researchers here at puckstruck’s Concussion Bureau were tallying historical hits to Gordie Howe’s head last week, they didn’t consider any pre-NHL incidents. In Gordie: A Hockey Legend (1994), Roy MacSkimming tells the boyhood tale of Howe — nine, maybe, ten? — swinging from beams in a barn at home in Saskatchewan before falling and knocking himself out. A friend is supposed to have run to the house to raise the alarm, calling out, “Mrs. Howe! Mrs. Howe! Gordie has killed hisself!”

The Howes wouldn’t talk to MacSkimming and generally objected to the effrontery of his having dared to pursue his whole (as the cover declares) Unauthorized Biography in the first place. They met him, apparently, and decided he wasn’t the right man for the job — that, and (plus) they were working on their own book, too, at the time, and couldn’t understand why MacSkimming wouldn’t get out of the way once they told him so.

When And … Howe! came out in 1995, post-MacSkimming, it declared war right on its cover, self-identifying as what must the unlikeliest book category of them all, An Authorized Autobiography. The anti-MacSkimming strain was strong within, too. If you make it to chapter thirteen, “Setting The Record Straight,” you’ll find a strange species of catechism in which Howe and his late wife, Colleen, take pains to dispute and refute a career’s worth of rumours and rivalous hearsay. First up is an item of interest on the concussion front — or not, I guess:

COLLEEN: There was an unauthorized book out that claimed Gordie’s dad used to hit him in the head. That’s absolutely false, and it made us both very angry.
GORDIE: My dad never touched me, other than the couple of times he kicked me in the butt. He’d threaten us, but he didn’t hit us, much the same way I treat my own kids.

Just for the record, I’ve gone looking for just such a claim in Gordie: A Hockey Legend. Nothing so far.

re (re): frayne

Major Frederic McLaughlin was not a toper. At home, he and Irene enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner but the Major was not a man to abide a man who abided Demon Rum. This made it difficult for the tall, spare, gentle publicity man of the Hawks, Joe Farrell, who ran up formidable liquor bills assuaging the voracious thirst of the watchdogs of the press who covered the Hawks. The Major steadfastly refused to countenance any expense account that included alcoholic refreshment, and Farrell was hard put to cover costs after a night of revelry entertaining the newshounds during Prohibition. So he began to itemize the purchase of pucks on his expense sheet, pucks by the gross. One day, the Major became aware that Farrell had been buying up enough pucks to float the Wrigley building in a heavy sea.

“What are we doing with all these pucks?” enquired the puzzled Major.

“The hockey writers have been asking for them, Major,” Farrell lied amiably. “They’ve been giving them to their families and friends and the grasping managing editors. They’re in great demand as souvenirs.”

The Major was delighted. “Splendid, splendid,” he exclaimed, to Farrell’s surprise and intense relief. “Nothing can beat word-of-mouth publicity. Keep up the good work.”

• Trent Frayne, “Speaking of Cashews, Meet Major McLaughlin” in The Mad Men of Hockey (1974)

re: frayne

Imlach puts ‘eh,’ with the question mark, at the end of positive statements, a habit acquired in Quebec City where the practice is commonplace. He lived in Quebec City for eleven years as a player, coach, general manager and eventually part owner of the Quebec Aces, a senior and later a minor-pro club. He had another speech idiosyncracy unrelated to Quebec City, an addiction to an old army word that serves as a verb, a noun or an adjective. Repetition seems to numb the listener’s senses to the word but it accounts for an observation on Imlach by the veteran defenceman Tim Horton: “Punch preaches a strange gossip, but he gets results.” Imlach said one time that the word has no real meaning to him. “It’s kind of a term of endearment, eh?”

• Trent Frayne, “Hockey’s a Game For Old Heads,” in It’s Easy — All You Have To Do Is Win (1968)

bung for beadle

Charles Dickens’ birthday this week, so happy 200th to Boz. If he’s not remembered as one of the great hockey novelists, hockey doesn’t mind, too much. Lots of famous novelists have overlooked the game and they continue to do it in such numbers that hockey takes it as a bit of a badge of honour. Or, at least, it’s what hockey’s used to. If all the novelists suddenly started plotting novels on the ice, hockey isn’t sure it would feel comfortable with all the attention.

Dickens had a lot on his plate, too. There’s that. Also, hockey was still just getting it together at the time that Dickens was doing his novel-writing — which is to say for most of the 19th-century. Not to say that it was unknown in Dickensian Britain: as Swedish hockey historians Patrick Houda and Dr. Carl Giden have exhaustively catalogued, hockey-like stick-and-ball games were rampant throughout the British Isles, on and off the ice, pre-, post-, and during Dickens’ lifetime. Continue reading

owns numerous atlases

We don’t know what it’s called, and the publisher remains a mystery. It’s supposed to be on shelves this year, but that’s as much as we know about a publication date. The author has talked to the Ethics Commissioner, we know, and the money’s all going to charity. What it’s actually about? We only have the barest detail on that, so far. And yet Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s long-anticipated hockey book might already be the most reviewed new title of 2012.

We’ve been hearing about the book for years, of course, since 2006, at least. It came up, for example, in his year-end interview with Canadian Press, right after he confirmed that the environment was now one of his tip-top priorities, after years of Liberal governments having ignored the problem, rhubarb, carbon capture, rhubarb. He said he tried to work on his hockey book for 15 minutes every day, though his pace had slackened lately. He was, after all, a busy man. Whatever spare time he had was devoted to hockey reading — though, of course, he did read with his children, too. “What was it called, The Blue Moon? Oh, I’ve forgotten the full title, we just finished that. Artemis Fowl. It’s a book Ben and I are reading. It includes the attempts of the pixie Belinda to take over the world. It’s very interesting.” Continue reading

the explainer

Paul Henderson gave Jim Prime a nosebleed that night in September of 1972. If that sounds like Prime was somehow on the Luzhniki ice, well, no — he was in Halifax, in his car, listening on the radio. When Henderson scored his famous Game Eight goal, Prime swerved — and his nose started to bleed. Which perplexed an American friend who was with him, as Prime recalls. “It’s a Canadian thing,” he explained. Continue reading

worst coaches

Coach and Midget Canadien Hockey Player, by Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, 1993, from Montreal’s McCord Museum.

Georges Laraque says that Wayne Gretzky is the worst coach he ever played for. That’s the news this week from Georges Laraque: The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy (Viking Canada), that and a whole bunch of stuff about the prevalence of steroids and assorted other performance-enhancers in the NHL. That’s what first caught the headlines before giving way to Gretzky’s terrible coaching. Continue reading

books for bilious times

And then there was backlash.

It had to come, I guess. “We are drowning in hockey bile,” Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber wrote back in April, when the addled brains of players like Sidney Crosby and Marc Savard weren’t getting better, not to mention the gathering body of evidence on links between hockey head trauma and dementia, plus (to borrow from Farber’s list of woes) all the suspensions, the awfulness of the shootout, and the generally egregious the New York Islanders. Continue reading


Topps / O-Pee-Chee1965-66 O-Pee-Chee #59 Bobby Hull

FIRST. Available soon from the world’s worst distillery? Bobby Hull’s voice is, quote, testosterone aged in oak kegs, according to Gare Joyce in The Devil and Bobby Hull (Wiley).

SECOND. Russian president Vladimir Putin has not given up on hockey. As recently as February, the former and future prime minister couldn’t skate. He vowed to learn, though, and by April he was ready to take a tottery turn at practice with a youth team at Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Palace. Then, last month, a sign that his focus was maybe straying: when future former p.m. Dmitry Medvedev took up racquet and bird to promote badminton to the people — “Those who play badminton well, make decisions quickly,” he advised — his opponent over the net was the future former president. Not to worry. ESPN magazine reports that Putin is taking regular skating lessons under the tutelage of fellow politician and erstwhile defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov. He has sights set, apparently, on skating at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Writer Brett Forrest put it to KHL president Alexander Medvedev: what kind of player will Putin be? “My personal feeling,” he said, “is that he will be a very disciplined player on the ice.”

THIRD. “It can be argued that the premium theorizing on most sports has fallen to the journeymen players — the Sheros and Nesterenkos of hockey, baseball’s Jim Bouton — and that the magnificently gifted — Rocket Richard in hockey, Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle in baseball — often appear to be in lifelong thinking slumps.”
• Roy MacGregor in a 1978 profile of Guy Lafleur, collected in his new compendium of hockey writings, Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (Random House Canada).

three hundredths

A hundred days changed Canada, according to a new book, 100 Days That Changed Canada (HarperCollins), edited by Mark Reid from Canada’s History magazine. Is this a flip-flop? It was just two years ago that Reid had a whole other book out to tell us that it was 100 Photos That Changed Canada. Which is it, Days or Photos? We deserve an answer.

Some quick stats, while we wait: most of the days (17) have been Thursdays in June (13), while relatively few have been Sundays (9) in August (4). 1967 had the most catalytic days, with five, bettering 19s 44 and 64 by one. Some years — 1966, for instance, and 2007 — nothing changed at all.

Continue reading